Fair Elections Now Act

Mr. President, imagine a President coming before a joint session of Congress and using his bully pulpit to call for a fundamental change in the way we fund political campaigns in America. Imagine a President saying we need to buy back our democracy by replacing special-interest-funded elections with publicly funded elections.

As hard as it may be to believe, that happened. An American President did say that--100 years ago. His name was Teddy Roosevelt, and his call for public financing of campaigns was the cornerstone of his 1907 State of the Union Address.

I know the Senate moves slowly, but a century is long enough to wait. Congress can pass all the lobbying and ethics reforms we want, but we won't get to the heart of the problem when it comes to the confidence of the American public until we address the issue of campaign financing. Special interest money and influence will always find new loopholes, until we change this political system fundamentally.

Just yesterday, Senator Specter and I introduced a plan to do that. It is called the Fair Elections Now Act. Our bill will create a pool of public, accountable funds that qualified Senate candidates can use to fund their campaigns in place of special interest dollars and dollars from wealthy donors. The program we propose is strictly voluntary, and it is consistent with our Constitution.

For years, I have always resisted the idea of public financing of political campaigns. I used to have this kind of quick response when people asked me about public financing. It was a pretty good one. I used to say I don't want a dime of Federal taxpayer dollars going to some racist such as David Duke running for office. It was a pretty good response, but frankly, as I reflect on it now, it ignores the obvious. For every miscreant like David Duke, there are thousands of good men and women in both political parties who were forced into a system that is fundamentally corrupting.

The stakes right now are too high in America not to change. A lot of people in America on both sides of the fence have a sneaky feeling that our democracy is in real trouble. No wonder. Look around at all the scandal and suspicion, the so-called "culture of corruption.'' Take a good look at the political money chase that consumes more of our time every year.

That is time a Senator and a Member of Congress doesn't have to devote to being a Senator. We can use that time talking to people we represent, people who might not have $2,000, $3,000, $4,000 to give to us but people who are even more important than those donors. That is time we could use to study and try to solve some of the big challenges facing this country, such as our reliance on foreign oil.

There are many good, honest people in politics, and this Senate is guided by the best of intentions, but we are stuck in a terrible, corrupting system.

Take a look, if you will, at the cost of running Senate campaigns. This chart is an indication of what we are up against. This is the average spent by candidates in the 10 most expensive Senate races between 2002 and 2006. Mind you, this is the average of the 10 most expensive races. Go back to 2002, and you see the number is somewhere short of $20 million. Now go to 2004 and the number is up to $25 million. Now come to 2006 and the number happens to be $34 million. That is $34 million on average spent by the 10 most expensive Senate races by both candidates--$34 million, the average amount.

The cost of running for the Senate is out of control. To think that the cost of running a Senate race between 2002 and 2006 in the 10 most expensive races has more than doubled tells us this is unsustainable.

Let me show this chart as well. It is a little hard to read because the charts are smaller. Here is another figure that is hard to imagine. It takes a mountain of money to lose a Senate campaign today. On average, to run and lose a campaign for the Senate costs $7 million. That is to lose. That figure, too, has doubled since 2002. Who knows what it is going to cost in 2008.

These figures are the averages spent by winners and losers for the Senate in each of these years, and one can see from these charts what is happening. Losers, $7 million to lose a Senate race; those running and winning, $12 million.

Then take a look at the total amount spent in Senate races between 2002 and 2006. We have now broken through the $500 million barrier. We are on our way to spending in total for about 33 races every election $1 billion. We are on our way there. There is no doubt we are going to hit that and soon. That is the reality of what it means to be elected to this important body.

The costs increase dramatically with every election. I am up for reelection in 2008. Candidates, if they are honest with you, will tell you they spend too many waking moments worrying about raising money, getting on the telephone, setting up fundraisers, traveling around the country, where good people--I thank them for helping me--are asked to give contributions. It becomes a consuming passion because you understand you are going to need that money to be reelected.

Mr. President, do you know why I am raising money? I am raising money to create a trust fund in Illinois for television stations. That is right. I am begging money from everybody I can find in order to buy television time next year. I need millions of dollars because the cost of television is soaring.

Take a look at the amount spent on political TV advertising. To give you a notion, political ad spending in millions of dollars, starting in 2002, $995 million; 2004, $1.6 billion; 2006, $1.7 billion; and 2008, I can't even guess where that figure is going to go.

Does anyone think our democracy is stronger and healthier because of this explosion in drive-by political TV ads? Have you ever met a voter who said: You know what the problem is with political campaigns? They are just too darn short. We need longer campaigns; we need to see more of your ads. I have never heard that. But I have heard the opposite. I have heard people beg for mercy: Are you going to have another week of those television commercials going?

The candidates hate raising the money for it, the people hate watching it, but the TV stations love it.

I visit TV stations in my State when it gets close to election time, and I meet with the managers. I met with one in downstate Illinois in this last election cycle. Nice fellow. I have seen him in Washington a lot. He runs a nice little station downstate. He had this big smile on his face.

I said: Things going OK here?

Yes, they sure are.

I said: Lots of political ads?

He said: Senator, I am the luckiest guy in southern Illinois. My TV station plays into Missouri. You know what is going on. We may not have a big Senate race in Illinois, but in Missouri, there is a big red hot contest between an incumbent Senator and a challenger, and they are buying every single minute I will sell them. To be honest with you, I have no time to sell to other advertisers because these political candidates are here.

Senators are spending more and more time each year when they are up for reelection creating these trust funds for wealthy broadcasting corporations instead of doing the work the voters sent us here to do. This is not good for our democracy. Our democracy cannot afford to let this system continue.

The plan Senator Specter and I have introduced is simple and constitutional. In order to receive Fair Election funds, candidates first have to prove they are real candidates. It isn't enough to think you are going to run; you have to have some support. People have to believe you are a real candidate. You prove that by, as a candidate, collecting a minimum number of small contributions.

What does it mean? You have to be a fundraiser, and in my State of Illinois, it would mean you would have to have 11,500 $5 contributions. I think that a person who is not a serious candidate would have a tough time raising 11,500 contributions in a State such as Illinois, but it is worth the effort because if you can raise that to prove you are a viable candidate, you can qualify for these funds to run your election campaign.

What happens if you are running against a millionaire or a billionaire? And believe me, a lot of political parties spend time searching for these so-called self-funders, people who pay for their own campaigns. Or what if you get caught in the crosshairs of some shadowy attack group that has decided they are going to take you on by running ads against you? In that case, the candidate who has agreed to be part of the Fair Elections financing can receive additional funds to level the playing field. All candidates who voluntarily agree to abide by Fair Elections rules will receive vouchers for free TV time and discounts on additional TV-radio time.

That is a major way in which our plan will help slow the explosive growth of campaign spending. The only thing the Fair Elections candidates cannot do is accept private, special interest or big-donor funds. With the exception of those 11,500 contributions of $5, you are not in the fundraising business. Maybe a few startup funds, but by and large, the qualifying $5 contributions is the end of your campaign fundraising.

This is not a naive, idealistic, over-the-Moon theory. Some of the programs are already working in Maine and Arizona. They were enacted by public referenda. They went to the voters of those two States and said: Do you want a shorter, cleaner, and fairer campaign? And the voters said "yes.''

They were enacted by public referenda, and they have been sustained through election cycles because they are producing shorter and better campaigns. They are producing better debates in place of a terrible avalanche of political ads that we see almost everywhere. Fair Elections in Maine and Arizona are helping those States pass the kinds of reforms Americans want, such as affordable health care.

Fair Elections are bringing new faces and new ideas into politics. They are helping level the playing field between incumbents and challengers because we see, under this system, the incumbent Senator doesn't get any more money than the challenger. They get the same amount of money, fair play.

Some may wonder why Senator Specter and I would support a system that weakens the incumbent advantage. The answer is simple: We believe that America needs a system that rewards candidates with the best ideas and principles, not just the person who is the most talented in raising special interest money.

Supporters of the current system who don't want to change say the public will never support Fair Elections. They are wrong. Take a look at these polling results when it comes to the idea of public financing of elections. Support is increasing for the idea of public financing in Fair Elections: Seventy-four percent of all voters support public financing in Fair Elections; 80 percent of Democrats, 65 percent of Republicans, and 78 percent of Independents.

This is an idea whose time has clearly come. These are the results of a national survey conducted for Common Cause and a group called Public Campaign. Three-quarters of Americans--Republicans and Democrats and Independents--support Fair Elections and public financing. It cuts across party lines, regional lines, and gender. Public financing will only cost us a fraction of what the current system costs. Make no mistake, if you are listening to this and saying: Why in the world would we want any tax dollars to go to campaigns, let them pay for it themselves, the harsh reality is America pays for the way we fund our campaigns.

We are sustained on both sides of the aisle. Unless you are a self-funding millionaire, we are sustained by special interest groups and wealthy donors.

I ask for those contributions because I am not a wealthy person. I do my best to come and vote my conscience, but the fact is, there is always a suspicion that when I cast a vote, it is because I received a contribution.

How much will it cost? About $1.4 billion a year, $2.8 billion per election cycle. About as much as we spend in 1 week on the war in Iraq is the amount it would cost us to publicly fund all House and Senate campaigns.

People who say the public shouldn't have to pay for elections miss the point. We are already paying for them in the hidden ways that favor incumbents and special interests. We pay when special interests are allowed to literally write their own bills. We pay every time a line is slipped into a bill anonymously, a big bill, behind closed doors giving some well-connected corporation tens of millions of dollars in tax breaks.

Fair Elections aren't just better than what we have now, ultimately they are less expensive to the taxpayers.

It has been a century since Teddy Roosevelt challenged Congress to get to the heart of the problem and get the special interest money out of the public elections 100 years ago. The American people do understand what is at stake. They understand our democracy is in trouble because special interests and big-donor money is choking the system and preventing us from facing up to the big challenges of our time.

I wish to say for the record what I said on the floor before in the midst of corruption and scandals: I want to make it clear, the overwhelming majority of men and women serving in Congress in both the House and Senate, those serving today and those I have served with over the years, are honest, good people trying to do the best in public service.

I am not suggesting otherwise, but the way we finance our campaigns is unfortunate, forcing many of us into compromising situations which are becoming increasingly difficult.

The American people are ready for Fair Elections. Fair Elections are already at work in several States. After a century, it is time for the Senate to accept President Teddy Roosevelt's challenge: Buy back our democracy from big donors and special interests and make Fair Elections the law of the land.